Protecting Our Cultural Heritage

by Kathleen Sgamma, President of Western Energy Alliance on April 18, 2019 - 10:36am

It was absolutely devastating to see Notre Dame up in flames this week. I remember being just as shocked and dismayed to see the Taliban destroy 1,700-year-old Buddhist statues after taking over much of Afghanistan. Not only is it horrifying to see two such important expressions of religious devotion destroyed, but the sense of disbelief that we, citizens of 21st century cultures, failed in our duty as stewards of such important cultural heritage was truly disappointing.

We’ve long since moved past the days where tourists could casually pick up artifacts at the Acropolis as personal souvenirs and curio seekers plundered artifacts from Mesa Verde. We as world citizens have come to cherish these precious gifts from the past and have developed the legal frameworks and technical knowledge to protect and preserve relics of the past, whether a great 12th century cathedral in Europe, a Buddhist shrine in Asia, or Pueblos in the West. So when we fail, whether deliberately in the form of an evil regime or by well-motivated intentions to restore as in Paris, it is truly appalling. How could we not be up to the task of protecting these cherished resources?

Luckily, we have laws like the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to help ensure we don’t lose important cultural resources in the West. We as a society have inculcated an ethic of valuing and protecting the Native American archaeological resources that underlay the cultural fabric of the West.

The oil and natural gas industry proudly shares that stewardship. Often more is known about artifacts in areas where oil and natural gas development occurs because we fund expert archaeological surveys that wouldn’t be conducted otherwise. When we find artifacts, we avoid them and assist in their preservation.

It’s ironic that on the day that Notre Dame was engulfed in a conflagration the majority on the House Natural Resources Committee was holding a hearing on oil and natural gas development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The park was created to protect the ancestral Pueblos of Chaco Canyon, which predate Notre Dame by centuries.

The implication of Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the Democrats on the committee, and the one-sided list of witnesses they had assembled was that oil and natural gas development near the park is threatening those cultural resources. I can’t document all the misinformation that was put forward during the field hearing in Santa Fe on Monday, but we live tweeted during the hearing to point out some of it.

However, it reflected the usual pattern. Make it sound like oil and natural gas development is threatening a national park, and therefore a buffer around it is needed. Ignore the fact that the park boundaries were purposefully set to protect the invaluable ruins of the great houses. Conveniently forget to mention that oil and natural gas development has been occurring in that area for decades, coexisting with that treasured heritage. Neglect to acknowledge that companies conduct extensive cultural surveys in areas like Chaco Canyon, and that laws require companies to identify, avoid and protect any resources discovered.

So besides bad timing, why this field hearing now? Members of the New Mexico congressional delegation want to move forward a bill to withdraw a ten-mile buffer zone around the park from oil and natural gas leasing and development. The bill has no chance of making it through the Senate, and the committee knows this, so other than messaging and using it as a way to attack industry, what’s the point?

Environmental groups know that by stirring up controversy, they put pressure on the Interior Department to stop leasing. Leases in the area have already been deferred for more analysis and tribal consultation, and the environmental lobby wants those deferrals to continue until there’s a change in administration. Not coincidentally, senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released her “plan” to stop all leasing on federal lands this week as well.

However, one important issue that’s overlooked is the impact on the many Indian allottees who hold private mineral rights in the withdrawal area. The bill would in effect take away their private property rights by stranding their assets, depriving them of royalties in a community otherwise prone to poverty. As Western Wire reports, the voice of these allottees was absent. They weren’t allowed to speak during the site visit to the park on Sunday, and no allottee representative was invited to testify at the hearing. Great. Ignore basic facts about how we protect cultural resources, and silence those who disagree.

The reality is we have the know-how and the wherewithal to continue to protect the ancestral Puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon. We have the laws in place and the ethic to value and preserve these precious resources. Our industry employs more archeologists than just about any other in the West, and avoiding impact to those known and newly discovered artifacts is already baked into our operations. We’re proud to be stewards of the West’s important cultural heritage, and we can and already are co-existing and preserving that heritage.

Blog Categories: